While I was on retreat earlier this month, I became keenly aware of how change happens. The fact that it is always happening -- that impermanence is the most reliably prevalent thing we can experience -- is not news to me. (I quite often forget that I know it, however.) But I was not so familiar with how major shifts in habitual thinking and being happen. It is typical to become a little disheartened at some point on a long silent retreat, and it's especially easy to feel discouraged in everyday practice. It can seem like nothing much is changing, that the encounter with greed, hatred, and delusion is never-ending. In daily life it can feel like my reactivity is always operating, no matter how deep and calm my meditation is, in spite of my intention to be mindful.
During meditation practice I noticed an image arising over and over again: a drop of water falling on a stone in a river. I understood that awareness was telling me to keep at it, that with each sit or walk, with each breath, I was moving toward liberation. Continuity, discipline, momentum -- bit by bit water wears away the stone. Each drop is as important as every other, each contributes to an eventual change of shape.
The Alexander Technique is like this too. At first, lessons are mostly about recognizing what is actually going on, how one is doing things, what habits of movement and tension are present. Once the habits are known, different choices can be made, exploration can begin, new ways of thinking are cultivated. But of course this doesn't last very long; habit is strong, and perhaps at first it is only possible to take a few steps before the old familiar pattern takes over once again. If we can accept that this is the way of it, we will progress in a steady fashion, which leads to thorough change.
Thus the sage advice to "begin again and again." Each time we choose to perform an action with awareness and ease, not allowing the unconscious habits to dictate our behavior, we carve out new neural pathways, so that the next time our body-mind will recall the open and easy way, and old habits are less likely to interfere. This builds a kind of underpinning that becomes more powerful the more we practice. Sometimes it is then possible to have a big change in a short period of time. It feels like a major shift in consciousness or sensory experience just happens, all at once.
Ayya Medhanandi Bhikkhuni describes how this works, in The Dharma of Snow:
"...we need to be able to feel our humanity, to feel our nature from the inside. Not superficially but from within, where the invisible factors of mindfulness, clarity, faith, energy, concentration, and wisdom can dismantle and dissolve years and years of deluded ways of perception, of relating to life. That’s what this practice brings about, given enough patience and diligence and surrendering to the process. It brings about a spiritual transformation. It’s invisible. We don’t know it right away, but after years we begin to see. We see the changes in each other. We see the changes in ourselves. It’s quite remarkable."
I find this essay deeply encouraging, a true validation of my commitment to daily mindfulness practice. I much prefer complete and lasting change that takes time, over quick changes that disappear like soap bubbles.
So no discouragement, at least not for long. Every time we wake up, we wake up a little more.